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We had almost skipped this float on the North Platte the day before. This particular section of water is one of the more remote pieces left in the Rocky Mountain West, and tends to be a bugger if the weather decides to turn. The wind had been blowing about 20 mph sustained with gusts between 30 and 40 and the question of whether or not to tough it out became a ridiculous standoff as we both pretended to be the considerate angler, worried for our fishing buddy’s welfare, like a couple of Victorian era gentlemen trying to usher the other though a door, saying things like “After you good sir,” and “Heavens no, after you.” In reality neither of us wanted to take responsibility for being the one to pull the plug on the whole affair should the weather decide to shape up. The clocks were ticking in our heads, knowing that at this stage of fall, any float could be our last float until spring. As a child, there was a phase where I very concretely grasped this idea that we were all on a very finite timeline with a beginning, middle and end. I became obsessed with the notion, convinced my parents were going to die soon, and once they went, it wouldn’t be long before I was next. I suppose it is one of the more cruel aspects of being a high functioning species. Time becomes a race, and even as a kid, I recall chasing it down, trying to hold on to the minutes, hours and days. Luckily that phase soon passed, but I get flashbacks of it as the leaves begin to change, and flies go from light little dry affairs to large clunky marabou streamers. It can make a girl a little desperate which isn’t to say I’ll hang up the rod for the winter. Trips will be made to mind numbingly cold tail waters, and slow sluggish fish will no doubt be caught. But it’s never quite the same. So giving up a day, even though it could be completely miserable, was hard to imagine. “Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to go?” Cole said, squinting into the wind, leaning forward on oars to keep the boat from being blown back upstream. “Well, of course I want to go. But I don’t want you to go if you don’t want to,” I said. “Well, I have no problem with it. I just don’t want you to be frustrated,” he said. “I’m fine, I just don’t want you to be miserable in this,” I said.

Fall Fishing: Toughing It Out on the North Platte

I’m not sure there’s any good way to get a drift boat around a moose intent on hogging the majority of a shallow river channel.

Go behind and you run the risk of getting shanked by the beast. I don’t know if moose kick like horses, but if they do, it would probably leave a devil of a mark.

Go in front and a giant hoof might pulverize your skull, giving you notoriety on one of those clips you see on late night infomercials. “Now, for only three payments of $9.99, get your OWN version of ‘When Animals Attack!’” — because who doesn’t want their own 1980s footage of some unsuspecting slug get the snot beat out of him by a camel. I’d watch.

As it was, we were poised to go under the poor boy, who no doubt has been pushed out of an adjacent mountain range only to find himself in the middle of a virtual desert in what used to be a peaceful river channel, looking – quite rightly – surprised at the prospect of being gunned down by a drift boat.

A moose heads into the willows for a snack after a close brush with a drift boat. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

A moose heads into the willows for a snack after a close brush with a drift boat. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

He couldn’t have been more surprised than those in the boat, flailing like hell to stop, because really, how does one estimate the clearance on a moose? It’s not like you can point the boat’s nose in the right direction and hope for the best.

It’s about this time of year that strange things start to happen on our fishing trips. Wyomingites take to the field in their blaze orange and the rivers are left to those of us who are either more enthusiastic or too stupid to get off the water. We get desperate in what feels like our last days of fishing and begin to pursue them like a brown trout on a streamer, grasping at something we cannot define, yet instinct tells us we must chase.

About the time the moose sensed his impending doom and made a move for the bank, Cole, my fishing partner and, more recently, husband, hooked a 20-inch rainbow on a streamer. Death by moose was apparently not a reason to put down the fly rod and as it turns out, while the rest of boat occupants were peeing their pants a little at the prospect of stopping a fast-moving boat before hitting a moose, Cole had fished through the entire thing.

We had almost skipped this float on the North Platte the day before. This particular section of water is one of the more remote pieces left in the Rocky Mountain West, and tends to be a bugger if the weather decides to turn. The wind had been blowing about 20 mph sustained with gusts between 30 and 40 and the question of whether or not to tough it out became a ridiculous standoff as we both pretended to be the considerate angler, worried for our fishing buddy’s welfare, like a couple of Victorian era gentlemen trying to usher the other though a door, saying things like “After you good sir,” and “Heavens no, after you.”

In reality neither of us wanted to take responsibility for being the one to pull the plug on the whole affair should the weather decide to shape up. The clocks were ticking in our heads, knowing that at this stage of fall, any float could be our last float until spring.

As a child, there was a phase where I very concretely grasped this idea that we were all on a very finite timeline with a beginning, middle and end. I became obsessed with the notion, convinced my parents were going to die soon, and once they went, it wouldn’t be long before I was next. I suppose it is one of the more cruel aspects of being a high functioning species. Time becomes a race, and even as a kid, I recall chasing it down, trying to hold on to the minutes, hours and days.

A brown trout has a streamer removed. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

A brown trout has a streamer removed. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

Luckily that phase soon passed, but I get flashbacks of it as the leaves begin to change, and flies go from light little dry affairs to large clunky marabou streamers. It can make a girl a little desperate which isn’t to say I’ll hang up the rod for the winter. Trips will be made to mind numbingly cold tail waters, and slow sluggish fish will no doubt be caught. But it’s never quite the same.

So giving up a day, even though it could be completely miserable, was hard to imagine.

“Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to go?” Cole said, squinting into the wind, leaning forward on oars to keep the boat from being blown back upstream.

“Well, of course I want to go. But I don’t want you to go if you don’t want to,” I said.

“Well, I have no problem with it. I just don’t want you to be frustrated,” he said.

“I’m fine, I just don’t want you to be miserable in this,” I said.

“What else are we going to do?” he said.

“There’s always the bar,” I said. “It’s not too late to get off. What do you think?”

“I don’t know, what do you think?”

A mess of wet streamers sit on the front of the boat. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

A mess of wet streamers sit on the front of the boat. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

“I’m fine if you’re fine,” I said.

“Lets just tough it out,” he said. “Maybe if we tough it out, something great will happen.”

There were thirty seconds of silence. The boat drifted a few more feet before a stiff gust of wind pushed us back up the river, starting it all over again.

“Well. What do you want to do?”

This went on for half an hour before we hit the point of no return and the decision was made for us: Tough it out, hope for something great.

Floating down the river, the trees had begun their change from green to golden. Cottonwoods took on a confused air as parts of their leaves seemed ready to transition to yellow, the other half staunchly green, too stubborn to let go of the warmth of summer. Willows lined the banks of the river, gilding its shores like the variegated sash of a child’s Christmas dress.

White marabou streamers were hucked across the river, hitting with a plop, sinking and then coming to life as they were stripped through the moving water.

The veracity with which a trout will hit a streamer has always been of interest to me and there’s no better place to watch it than in the gin-like clarity of fall waters.

This time of year, trout hone in on the two instincts that make them prime targets for a well-stripped streamer. First is their instinct to feed and the second is their instinct to defend their territory. However when a fish hits your fly, it can be hard to say why they hit that fly. Most people might say, well who cares, a fish is a fish. But addicts like us need a reason.

Bob Linesman, who, without wanting to sound like too much of a groupie, wrote an excellent book called “Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout,” which explains that while we don’t know exactly “what’s going on in the brain of some goofy trout,” we can still make an educated guess.

Feeding behavior is more typical in the spring but happens in the fall as well. Changing seasons cause the trout to fatten up for winter.

“When they’re hungry, they don’t miss it,” he says. “They’re gonna get it and they’re gonna chomp down.”

At the same time, they become more territorial. Spawning male browns go through a transformation that makes their skin like armor, thickening to help protect them in territorial battles. Bigger fish will flash on streamers, like the mock charge of a grizzly as if to say “I’m not gonna kill you and eat you, but I might.”

You will see them emerge from the depths and tail the thing like a submarine. Sometimes they chase it clear up to the boat, or even under the boat, so intent on what they are doing that the presence of the boat seems totally lost on them.

It’s these flashes from large fish that – while this is embarrassing to admit – elicit the most excited of high pitch squeals from my boat. And that’s just Cole. The fact of the matter is you can’t help but squeal when a 25 inch fish stalks your streamer like a predator on prey before flashing it’s red spots to the sky and swimming back. And they almost always swim back.

A brown trout is released back into the waters of the North Platte River. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

A brown trout is released back into the waters of the North Platte River. Photo by Shauna Stephenson.

But for the most part, if you want to avoid arguments, you can chalk this feed or chase behavior up to instinct, which sure makes you wonder if trout feel disappointment. They chase what they think to be a tasty sculpin or a fat crayfish halfway across the river, only to find out they’ve been fooled by what amounts to a bit of fluff on barbed wire. They might as well have been chasing birds in the sky.

Back on the river, the fly of choice has changed to a large black streamer with red flash under its heavily weighted head. It pulls in large browns until the sun has almost set and the boat and it’s contents must be put to bed for the night.

We park in a small patch of willows surrounded by the enormity of Wyoming sage flats. The remoteness of the place is both humbling and comforting, humbling because there are still parts of the world so open and forgotten and comforting for the same reason.

Chili made and fire stoked, we settle into our chairs and reflect on the day. There’s a moment around a late night campfire where dinner is done and all talk ceases, and you tip your head back and look at the sky. The logs at your feet warm your legs, and you can’t help but take stock of your life, coming to the same honest conclusion every time – mainly that a life spent on a river is a life well lived and as long as you can remember that, you’re living something great instead of waiting for it to happen.

The next day we would learn that “great” is both a mixed bag and a subjective word. We would start the morning with a hound dog eating poop and then vomiting it back up in the boat. A moose would blockade the river. Trout the size of your leg would be caught, one right after another.

But for that moment, the one happily snuggled up to the fire, there was only sage, and streamers, ticking by until they would be gone with the winds of winter. In our own way, we’re all trying to grasp the infinite nature of what happens around us, hanging on to it tightly, as if holding it in our hands will keep it from slipping away. But I suppose in reality, we’re all just chasing feathers.

About Shauna Stephenson

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One comment

  1. For the time I read this, I was not at my computer under deadline stress but out on the river, smelling and feeling the autumn chill. Love this writer’s voice and hope she comments here often!